Part of our series on ideas, practices, institutions and mores that appear to be on their way to extinction.
Online political observers and commentators – from The New Republic to Powerline to Huffington Post to Slate to Salon to Hot Air – have long complained about traditional media. These newspapers and magazines (such as Time and Newsweek) are likened to a herd of dinosaurs. Why?
As the internet gained usage and readership, the voices railing against mainstream media outlets became more adamant. Entire sites devoted to exposing journalistic irregularities sprouted like weeds: Patterico took on the Los Angeles Times; Anti-Strib was formed to expose editorial bias at the Minneapolis Star Tribune; LGF got lucky with Rathergate; Arianna Huffington and Markos Moulitsas created the left-wing bandwagon; an army of others across the blogosphere took up arms against tradition in journalism. The commonality? The perception that traditional media and journalism were providing a fractal of truth, diminished objectivity, and an agenda-driven slant via outlets purporting a non-subjective, balanced platform.
The free press has long been held as a pillar of democracy, bolstered by a perception of superiority to propaganda outlets, shielded by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and benefiting from legal protections in democratic societies throughout the world. Only lately (the last 50 or 60 years or so) has the profession of journalism been elevated to the pedestal of immunity from influence, committed to holy justice and pure truth, all flavored by lofty perspective and academic credentialing. This elevation in perception has been primarily self-appointed and aggrandized.
Stalwart heroes and heroines in journalism achieved status by reporting from exotic and dangerous locations and by manning nightly anchor chairs. Legendary characters, both real and fictional, from Edward R. Murrow to Hildy Johnson to “Uncle” Walter Cronkite to Nellie Bly, were beloved paragons of dedication to the tenets of source protection, investigative technique, and codes of ethics. These were the pros, and every kid who ever took a J-school class aspired, if only for a moment, to the likes of Woodward and Bernstein.
Professionals dominated the practice and culture of journalism via control. That was the Old World. The New World, filled with semi-pros who are self-publishing in blog and online magazine format, is daring to question and hold the Old World accountable.
In the Old World, news was bought and consumed from the “fit to print” menu. Valeria Maltoni reminds us that content is a product, just like an entree or a side order of fries, and should be treated as such. With the advent and maturity of the Internet, more ordinary folks began to bring their own food to the table and share it with other diners. Old journalism began to look like Mel the fry-cook, standing behind the counter with a greasy spatula, incredulous that a customer would demand only free-range chicken.
Maltoni points to Jay Rosen, of NYU’s School of Journalism, who calls this a “Migration Point for the press tribe.” Others similarly note that the revolutionary aspects of news dissemination in blogs and micro-blogging platforms have “deposed the secular priests . . .” who were used to dominating by deciding “all the news that’s fit to print,” rather than all the news that might be out there. In the Old World of journalism, little mind needed to be paid to the 3rd world, or flyover land – which is located west of the Hudson and definitely “outside the Beltway” ringing Washington, D.C.
Adam Tinworth (link via Maltoni and Rosen) explains that media people think of blogging and the internet as a publishing process, rather than acknowledge the context that community brings. There’s a protective wall that old journalism wants kept between the news consumer and those who are slinging the hash. Tinworth believes journalists still want to “see themselves as a class apart.” News media moguls belatedly began to realize the empire was in danger of being swept away by a more demanding customer base. Their fix? Hubris. They dug their heels and offered more of the same.
Scott Rosenberg, founder of Salon, says
As of last June, Rosenberg thought individual journalists could and should still migrate, but he felt it was too late for media institutions.
Reality seems to have borne out Rosenberg’s prediction. Layoffs and buyouts throughout the institutional sector have set individual journalists free. However, the captains of old media are going down with the ship from the aptly named Fleet Street to major North American markets. Brad DeLong, economist at Berkeley, blogs about deeper press corps flaws, citing egregious ground game at the Washington Post, in particular. Something suggests the chicanery DeLong describes isn’t limited to the WaPo.
Still, with the – albeit muted – crowing about continually speaking truth to governmental power, etc., the traditional media appeals to legislative bodies for a piece of the financial bailout. Ed Morrissey wants to know what happens when the Fourth Estate becomes a government subsidiary? What does financial leverage in the form of partial to full ownership do to reportage on public officials besides further compromise any assurances of objectivity? See: Pravda.
Commenters on Ed’s post note that the newspaper industry is in worse shape than the auto companies. What sort of ROI would taxpayers get from a financial bailout, then? Others, not totally tongue-in-cheek, speculate that a bailout would merely formalize an ownership agreement that already tacitly exists with the Democratic National Committee, tit for tat with Rosenberg’s point, above. (Ouch).
Like GM and Wall Street investment banks, traditional media have lost the faith of the people. Concerns about government intervention draw NPR and PBS into the fray. The Fairness Doctrine is being discussed in pre-committee legislative circles. Is there sentiment inside the Beltway that old media should be allowed to fail? In favor of an even less than free press?
Abdication of objectivity in editorial content translates into lower revenues, say some. Others believe the internet opened the marketplace to choice. Certainly newspaper classifieds aren’t competitive compared with free web listings. Advertising placement and readership declines would seem to be part of the same death spiral.
With major newspaper stock prices at junk valuations, perhaps free market principles are in play. Belatedly, today’s Star Tribune featured Editor Nancy Barnes’ column wherein she acknowledges everything from the loss of faith in journalism to declining readership and revenues, and resultant cost-trimming, layoffs and buyouts. Her fix? A “fight for the core values of this profession and of this company.”
What would the Strib’s core values be? Well, Nancy thinks it obvious that the Strib’s communities and readers “need trained journalists (aided by the public [ italics mine]) to stand guard as watchdogs over government and business.” I guess they haven’t been doing that very much as of late, or maybe they’ve not been trained until now.
Perhaps trained journalists could have headed off the likes of Madoff or Blagojevich at the pass if they were paying attention to the fundamentals, just like Woodward and Bernstein brought the Nixon administration to a halt. (Maybe less sarcasm…a lot of Strib employees don’t have jobs anymore).
Nancy believes the “blogosphere has brought an infusion of opinions to the world of journalism, but they cannot take the place of journalists who will investigate how all this has happened, why it happened, and explain who might be to blame.” So, Nancy, bless her heart, is offering up more of the same hubris. Left unaddressed in her editorial are the astounding and unapologetic lapses of objectivity evident throughout her newspaper. These lapses regularly leach into the Strib’s so-called objective reporting, as well-documented on a regular basis in . . . you guessed it . . . the blogosphere.
In kind of an “oh, well” tone, the national media (well, mainly the Washington Post) self-examined in a similar fashion after November’s election, finding more than twice the amount of negative coverage of John McCain compared with negative coverage of Barack Obama. Perhaps they should be forgiven their air of breathless anticipation given the historic proportions of Obama’s candidacy.
Nancy Barnes titled her editorial Resolution: To spend more time digging. Rather ironic, as covention would suggest when one finds oneself in a hole that’s the last thing one might consider. Regardless, we think editors like Nancy, or those at any number of Old World media outlets, need more than basic training refreshers should they ever hope to stagger out of the tar pits of their self-created devaluation and resume their search for who to blame.